Review: The Price

I’m a little odd when it comes to Arthur Miller. The big hits, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible leave me cold. Oh, I can appreciate that they are thoughtful, insightful and well made, but beyond that? My fave Miller is the almost-never produced Depression epic, The American Clock. And now I can count The Price, about the lingering effects of the Depression thirty years on, as my second favorite.

Part of the reason I’ve taken to The Price: the usually too-earnest Miller injects some welcome humor into the proceedings, in the person of Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an octogenarian furniture dealer. Solomon’s also a former vaudevillian, which is more than evident in the charm and by-play he brings to his negotiations. Solomon is hired by Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) to appraise his family’s furniture, all that is left of his father’s estate.

As Solomon, DeVito is impeccably cast. Imbuing Solomon with nearly inexhaustible spunk, DeVito makes sure that we know the man has a purpose for every word he says, though it is almost never just what’s on the surface. He puts him across as the kind of guy who will make you absolutely love him, even though he may be taking advantage of you. Victor does his best to resist his wiles, but can’t help admiring him.

Victor is the character on whom all the play’s action hinges, and Ruffalo does a terrific job of conveying how the trauma of the Depression has never ceased to haunt and petrify him. Jessica Hecht, who plays Victor’s wife Esther, is one of the most skilled interpreters of Miller around, and gives Esther a good deal more love of both her husband and life than is actually in the lines, to compelling effect. Tony Shalhoub plays Victor’s cynical doctor brother, and does a great job of projecting surface confidence, when really there’s a terror of the abyss below – just as affected by the Depression as Victor, in his own way. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Suzanne Vega

I’ve said before that New York-themed shows seem to make the best fit for the Café Carlyle. Suzanne Vega is one of those performers who is quintessentially New York without even trying, like David Johanson or Debbie Harry (both of whom have played the Carlyle). Her current show goes further: Its core is a bunch of songs from her new album and show called Lover, Beloved, which is about novelist Carson McCullers, a Southerner by birth, but a true New Yorker by choice. There’s even a song called “New York is My Destination.”

McCullers was disgusted by the intolerance she witnessed growing up in Georgia, arrived in New York in her early twenties and wrote with great compassion about outcasts. As far as I can tell Lover, Beloved alternates between monologue and song, all written in McCullers’s voice. The songs from this project are every bit as good as Vega’s older songs, which are among the sturdiest, most original and beautiful that the singer / songwriter tradition has produced.

Speaking of those older songs, she opens with “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” which has chillingly fresh resonance in the era of the El Cheeto. Vega later juxtaposes one of her classic misfit anthems “Left of Center” with an even more potent new one “I Never Wear White,” to great effect.

And when you come to her biggest hits, well, “Luka” is merely a good song – that became a massive hit – by someone who regularly wrote much better ones. It’s to Vega’s credit that she sings it simply and cleanly, without a hint of condescension to the song or the audience.

“Tom’s Diner,” by contrast, comes across as a real monster live, showing itself to be one of Vega’s very best. A big reason that this song comes across so well is Gerry Leonard, her musical director and guitarist. A self-professed “equipment geek” Leonard turns his electric guitar into a whole band, rhythm section included. Stunning, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Trixie Mattel

The title of Drag Race fan favorite Trixie Mattel’s show, Ages 3 and Up, is clearly profoundly ironic. This stand-up act is filled to the gunnels with comedy that’s either perverse or dark, or sometimes both at once. Oh, and by the way this run is completely SOLD OUT, so keep a sharp eye on producer Spin Cycle’s website for her next engagement (and for that matter, a great variety of Drag Race-related entertainment).

This show is Trixie’s first full-length entry into stand-up, but she’s been honing it for a while, and she clearly has a natural aptitude for the form. Plus, either Trixie or her creative team is paying attention to how the best stand-up acts have been built for some time now – circling in from a highly topical and satirical beginning to a very personal and more thematically serious ending. Everybody from Alec Mapa to Colin Quinn does it like this, and there’s a good reason: it raises stand-up to a higher and much more satisfying plateau.

Trixie’s also very gifted at meta-comedy, getting a secondary laugh when she reads the room’s reaction – or freely admitting she loves a certain bit so she’s keeping it, audience reaction be damned! Though there’s a lot in the show that’s autobiographical, including an actually touching ballad she wrote about lost love, Trixie keeps Drag Race-related stories to a minimum. She plays off her being eliminated twice with a joking bitterness that feels more affected than real, and freely admits that the show profoundly changed her life. Recommended.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Sunset Boulevard

A 40-piece orchestra – one of the largest ever to play on Broadway – is the real star of this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. The score isn’t Webber’s absolute best; it’s very uneven, with passages that sound a little too close to numbers from other (frankly, better) musicals. The best moments, however, are among the best things Webber ever wrote, and hearing those lushly rendered by that enormous ensemble really is a treat.

Glenn Close is reprising the role of faded silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder movie), for which Close won a Tony in 1995. Now as then, her performance is a triumph of acting and vocal interpretation. Close’s voice has never been the most powerful musical instrument, but she is canny about musical phrasing. Place this at the disposal of her ferocious acting instincts, and the results are rarely less than totally compelling.

I’m still not convinced that Wilder’s noir poison-pen-love-letter to Hollywood needs to be a musical (Wilder himself said it shouldn’t be one). As pleasurable as the lush arrangements and Close’s grand opera scale emoting are, it still feels like they add up to a bit less than the sum of their parts. Director Lonny Price’s minimalist staging doesn’t make any convincing arguments for it either. When something like “With One Look” or “As If We Never Said Goodbye” comes along, though, it’s hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

This tops many outlets “Best of 2016” lists, and is often compared favorably with super-musical Hamilton in terms of innovation and sheer vivacity. What do I think of it? Well, similar to the way I feel about Hamilton, I at least really enjoyed it about as much as everyone else. As for innovation, well, this sort of thing has been done a lot before, especially in the 1970s, though I can’t deny the dexterity of execution here far exceeds anything I’m aware of in this vein.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is composer / writer Dave Malloy’s inspired, stylistically eclectic musical adaptation of a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia under attack from Napoleon, War and Peace (some of the spicier and more romantic pages of the novel, it should be said). Director Rachel Chavkin has staged Malloy’s pluckily intellectual creation in a style that in the 1970s was called “environmental,” and today goes by the moniker of “immersive.”

Having worked on immersive productions myself, I’m not taken so much by the idea of Chavkin’s immersive staging – it’s just one of many ways this material could have been staged. What I am taken by is the breathtaking skill and creativity with which Chavkin has applied it.

Here’s one example that stands out for me: our hero Pierre visits a club. For this scene, a 1812 Moscow aristocratic private club is portrayed as S&M night at a 1990s mega-club. It’s a fun idea, but also a really dumb and corny one. Granted that things could get pretty wild at the 1812 club, what with the epic consumption of vodka, but it’s still really apples and oranges.

However, Chavkin, lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Sam Pinkleton attack the sequence with such precision and energy that the sheer visceral impact is undeniable, even overwhelming, especially in this immersive context. Chavkin and her team bring this combination of smarts and virtuosity to every scene. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

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‘Tis the season – time for drag queens to work a holiday theme to buy Mama a new pair of shoes! There’s a joke in Jinkx Monsoon’s current Xmas show that makes that explicit – “Why do we put ourselves through doing holiday shows? For the paycheck!!!” This particular show also features her musical counterpart, pianist/composer/raconteur Major Scales, and is called Christmas Mourning, mostly in response to the election.

Their biggest hit, The Vaudevillians, was a real stunner, a thoroughly thought-out evening of cabaret theatre, which successfully staked their claim to be regarded as major players in the worlds of both high drag and cabaret. This show is almost as structured – which is very unusual for holiday drag shows. Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition, which is why they’re capable of producing a holiday drag show that’s nearly as high concept as The Vaudevillians.

They share traumatic Christmas stories, sing a Lana Del Rey song with “exactly as much effort as she herself puts into performing it” and give Mariah Carey the bird. They even sing a couple of strong original songs. One cheekily pays tribute to being gender-fluid. The other (a solo for Scales) pictures a passive-agressive dinner with Trump-voting relatives.

Christmas Mourning is light years more thoughtful than your typical holiday drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. It’s somewhat similar to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s holiday shows – very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface. Don’t miss it!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

News: Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo…

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Steven Brinberg is the premier Barbra Streisand impressionist, who has taken his act, “Simply Barbra”, to international acclaim both on stage and television (performing on several occasions with none other than Streisand buddy Marvin Hamlisch) paying homage to all that is Streisand. Steven does not lip-sync but does a stunningly accurate singing impressionism of Streisand.

Steven will be doing Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo… at Feinstein’s / 54 Below this Sunday, December 18. It’s an evening of holiday tunes, Streisand classics and glimpses of other divas from Cher to Bea Arthur. All performed live, no lip synching. Look for a special guest star to join Barbra to help ring in the holidays – and sing some famous Christmas songs written by Jewish composers.

Steven Brinberg has been acclaimed for his vocal performance of Barbra Streisand for over a decade around the world. In addition to touring all over America he has also played extensively in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Thailand, Spain, Mexico and Canada…more cities then the real Barbra! Steven was hired by Streisand’s management to perform at her friend Donna Karan’s birthday party.

The show contains songs from both The Christmas Album – “probably more from that one,” Steven notes, and Christmas Memories. “It’s funny,” says Steven, “I change the show constantly especially the talking. At one point, I referred to James Brolin as a famous B movie and TV actor, at another point I took the B out. The challenge in keeping the shows fresh after so many years is helped by Barbra still being such a presence. Keeps it current. And I’m always free to sing songs she has never done, as I know exactly how she might do them down to the last breath. I had been singing ‘Make Someone Happy’ in the show years before she recorded it. And the end result when she did it was pretty close. I was surprised though that she changed her phrasing on the lyric from ‘Love is the ansuh’ to ‘Love is the anserrr’ perhaps to plug the title of the album!”

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.